Our nation's elementary and secondary schools are filled with abundant examples of student-to-student gender-based harassment and violence. Despite requirements for compliance and monitoring articulated in state and federal laws, and continuing guidance issued by federal agencies and the federal courts on federal law Title IX, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1972 to eliminate sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal financial assistance (nearly all public K-12 schools and all public and private universities/colleges), contemporary surveys attest to the ugly entrenchment of sexual and gender harassment in our schools (AAUW, 1993, 2001; Human Riuhts Watch. 2001; GLSEN, 2005). But sexual or gender-based harassment rarely show up in any of the standard analyses of school violence. Gender is missing.
This essay considers the erasure of gender- and sexuality-based harassment that occurs when schools frame all violence as bullying, under the current post-Columbine regime known as "zero tolerance." The zero-tolerance mania, which disproportionately affects students of color, is part of the pervasive punitive ideology and social policy that also includes trying minors as adults, deterrence theories, and mandatory sentencing. Educators now include bullying behaviors under the ever-broadening umbrella of zero tolerance. Schools proudly state that they will not tolerate bullies; there are bullybuster posters around school buildings and new rules to cover bullying, and eradicating bullies is all the rage with state legislators, school officials, and consultants. Bullying, a psychological concept, has evolved to include any act of meanness, exclusion (i.e. saving a seat for a friend, or even uttering preference for one person over another), threats of any sort, as well as physical assaults.
The zero tolerance approach has taken over the good senses of the educational and legislative establishments. What has gotten lost in this surge of attention and new laws that impose a rather expansive notion of bullying in schools are the rights of students to go to school in an environment that is gender-safe, and free from gender-based harassment and violence.
The extremely popular framework of bullying represents a problematic formulation of violence as it both degenders harassment and removes it from the discourse of rights by placing it into a more psychological, pathologizing realm. Objections to these antibullying efforts embodied both in the new laws and the training efforts that have accompanied them are multiple: (1) the laws largely do not hold school administrators liable in the same ways to resolve the problems that federal civil rights in education laws, like Title IX, require but instead put the onus of solving the problem on the victim; (2) most of these anti-bullying laws are overly broad and arbitrary, with the result that students are suspended or expelled from schools for a variety of minor infractions; and (3) sometimes egregious behaviors are framed as bullying when in fact they may constitute illegal sexual or gender harassment or even hazing or assault (Stein, 2003; Stein, 2005).
In the United States, the discourse around bullying is a relatively new phenomenon, in large part imported from Europe and research conducted there since the 1970s (e.g. Ahmad & Smith, 1994; Olweus, 1993). Prior to the emphasis on bullying as a new trend for U.S. educators and researchers, redress of injustices and wrongs were addressed through civil and constitutional rights (Whalen & Whalen, 1985). However, those linkages and legacies are now in jeopardy: the discourse of bullying may obliterate the rights discourse (Stein, 2003).
THE RESEARCH ARENA: HARASSMENT OR BULLYING?
Psychologists seem to dominate the field of bullying research and seem largely unfamiliar with nearly 30 years of research from the fields of education, sociology, anthropology, and feminist legal scholarship. …